Hot, hot and hotter: Hot days and outdoor work in regional Australia
Have Australia’s summer heatwaves been knocking you for six? Spare a thought for the regional Australians who have outdoor jobs.
The number and intensity of hot days (which the Bureau of Meteorology defines as days over 35°C) is increasing and projections show this upward trend will continue.
The CSIRO has modeled projections of the number of hot days and the average daily maximum temperatures that we could expect to see in future summers. This was done using scenario 4.5 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP), which is a moderate climate scenario.
At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), we are interested in how this will impact jobs in regional areas, particularly for areas with a high proportion of outdoor jobs.
We worked with a group of Australian National University undergraduates from the Fenner School of Environment and Society on this issue, as partial fulfilment of their course on complex research problems in a real world context.
The project found that heat is not something that should be taken lightly and that it can have a number of health, safety and productivity implications. Heatwaves are one of Australia’s most deadly extreme weather events and can often result in far greater loss of human life than people realise. For example, 71 people in Victoria died in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires but at least 420 people died in the heatwaves before the fires[i]. A similar story happened more recently in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires[ii]. Heat related deaths are also much more common for outdoor workers.
As well as mortality risks, hot weather increases the probability of workplace accidents, because the heat can result in loss of concentration and “poor decision making”. Reports of injury across all workplaces are significantly higher on a hot day, and even more so for consecutive hot days.
Hot weather also results in lost productivity. Heat stress occurs when people are unable to keep their body at a healthy temperature, and this directly affects work capacity by both decreasing work tolerance and by requiring changes to work timetabling, such as increased rest and recovery periods. An increase in hot conditions means that there will be more places where it will be difficult to safely work outdoors for big parts of the year.
This trend of increasing hot days has major consequences for employment, particularly in regional Australia because many of its major industries are those which are more likely to be affected by heat. Agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and construction are industries which could be most impacted by increasing hot days[iii]. This is because a number of jobs within these industries are outside or underground and involve physical exertion. Often these industries also require protective clothing which can trap hot air close to the wearer’s body and/or can reduce evaporation of sweat to cool the body. The combination of all three factors can be detrimental to worker health, safety and productivity.
Regions that are already hot and have a high proportion of jobs in these industries, will be most exasperated by increasing hot days. Early analysis shows that, on the whole, this increases with distance from the coast and with remoteness. Meaning that the more remote and central regions will face the greatest confluence of increased hot days and high proportion of jobs in typically outdoor industries. Areas with smaller populations are generally more vulnerable too, as they have a higher proportion of jobs in industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction and mining compared to jobs in other industries.
Based on the modelled projections, in the next 10 years (by 2030) the number of Local Government Areas with a high number of hot days and a high proportion of jobs in typically outdoor industries will increase significantly. While all of regional Australia remains relatively vulnerable to hot days, early analysis shows that Western Australia and the central western regions of New South Wales and Queensland are most vulnerable to this.
The effects of increased hot days and outdoor employment will vary between regions. A snapshot of the sparsely populated Cook Shire, in far north Queensland, shows that of the 2,674 jobs in the region[iv], just over half (53%) are in industries which have a tendency to be impacted by hot days. The mining industry accounts for a particularly large proportion of this, especially in open cut bauxite mining. Historically the region has experienced an annual average of 12 days above 35°C however CSIRO modelling shows this will almost double by 2030 (to 22 hot days) and reach an average of 40 hot days in 2090 (under a moderate climate scenario RCP4.5).
The implications of this on the health, safety and productivity of outdoor workers could be magnified by the remoteness which characterises much of Cook Shire, and the relatively large number of seasonal workers, many who may be less aware about the risks of high temperatures and may be less acclimatised to the heat. Economic projections for the region rely heavily on attracting and developing more domestic and international tourists. While Cook Shire has many natural attractions, such as world class fishing, hiking and snorkeling, hot days could pose a risk or deterrent for visitors.
The Upper Lachlan Shire, in southern New South Wales, has a similar sized workforce and a high proportion of local jobs are in industries which tend to have high outdoor components and exposure to hot days (42% of 994 jobs). These jobs are particularly in agriculture such as sheep and cattle farming. Historically the Upper Lachlan Shire has had an average of 5 hot days per year but CSIRO modelling shows this will nearly double by 2030 (to 9 hot days) and reach 14 hot days by 2090. Implications for graziers includes difficulty handling animals during hot conditions and reduced animal productivity (such as through reduced reproductive efficiency, growth rate and meat quality), as well as the impacts to human health, safety and productivity.
The Regional Australia Institute will continue this work in 2019 as we continue to look at jobs in regional Australia.
How will an increases in hot days affect work in your region? Is your community already taking steps to adjust to the impact of hot days on outdoor employment?
The Regional Australia Institute gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Anne Murray, Rahini Nipperess and Felix Mechnig-Giordano from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, at the Australian National University, together with their course convener Associate Professor Lorrae Van Kerkhoff.
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[i] Crompton R., McAneney K. and Chen K., 2010. Influence of Location, Population and Climate on Building Damage and Fatalities due to Australian Bushfire: 1925-2009. Weather, Climate and Society, 2:300-310.
[ii] Risk Frontier, 2018, PerilAUS natural disaster database
[iii] Petitti, D.B., Harlan, S.L., Chowell-Puente, G. and Ruddell, D., 2013. Occupation and environmental heat-associated deaths in Maricopa County, Arizona: A case-control study. PloS one, 8(5): 62596.
Schulte, P.A. and Chun, H., 2009. Climate change and occupational safety and health: establishing a preliminary framework. Journal of occupational and environmental hygiene, 6(9): 542-554.
[iv] ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016